Philosophy, Not Science
For matters of the mind
Play along for a moment.
Did you know self control is a limited resource?
Studies have shown that if you exert self control on one task, it will be harder to do another task afterwards. Your self control will have been depleted by the first challenge, leaving you hopeless against the second.
Therefore, to ensure you have the maximum self control for your most important work of the day, you should design your day around properly allocating your limited reserves of self control.
Do the hardest task first!
Wear the same clothes every day so you have one less choice to make!
Feel free to get snippy with your partner instead of restraining yourself, you need that energy for optimizing ad clicks!
But wait, the fun continues. Now it turns out the Ego Depletion research can’t be replicated! Abandon ship! Delete your old blog posts and prepare your “AAACTUALLY” responses for the unenlightened!
What an embarrassing mess. The bloggers, authors, and threadooors were spreading fake news for years. You might not have a limited willpower reserve after all. But at least you get to expand your wardrobe.
Here’s a question though: Whose fault is it for this broad misinformation?
At first it seems the mistake lies with the original researchers.
Or maybe it actually lies with the writers who commercialized the research for clicks and book sales.
But no, the mistake was much earlier.
In “Leaving the Church of Science” I explored how scientific research is a tool for epistemology. It’s an attempt to create a framework for claiming what we know and do not know. Like most tools, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Its effectiveness depends on the artisan using it and the craft they’re using it on.
Part of our problem is we have this one word “science” to describe radically different fields. There is a massive gulf between the science of something like Physics and the science of Psychology.
When Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted how time would change at different speeds and gravities, we had no way of testing it. When we did decades later, we discovered that his predictions were incredibly accurate. And his predictions are apparently always that accurate, in every environment we’ve been able to test it in. That is one version of science.
Psychology also calls itself “science,” but it’s about as close to Physics as a Bichon Frise is to an Arctic Wolf. They both have white fur and share membership in the genus Canis, but they’re not really the same thing. The results of Physics reliably predict the motion of objects at all conceivable scales and gravities, but the results of psychology often fail to predict anything.
Not to suggest Physics is perfect. Physics was not always called physics. In Aristotle’s day, it was another branch of philosophy. It only became Physics once we could apply mathematical tools and the scientific method to testing its assumptions.
It sometimes fails to predict certain phenomena or reaches its limits. But it tends to improve over time. When you compare Aristotle with Copernicus with Galileo with Newton with Einstein, it’s clear that we’ve continued to refine our understanding of movements at different scales over time. And we’ve improved that understanding in a somewhat linear manner, moving from one Paradigm Shift to the next.
We can see a clear improvement in our understanding of Physics over time as the tools of science and engineering have been applied to it.
Can we say the same for psychology?
If we think of psychology as “the scientific study of mind and behavior” (thanks Wikipedia), do we see a similarly dramatic improvement in that field now vs. what the ancients were capable of when it was just Philosophy? And here the answer is much murkier.
We would hope that disciplines within psychology would use the tools of science to give us that improved understanding compared to Aristotle’s day, but you’d have a hard time finding any advice in modern pop-psych literature that you can’t find in ancient philosophy.
Pull a quotation from Letters from a Stoic:
“It’s not because they’re hard that we lose confidence; they’re hard because we lack the confidence.”
Seneca is arguing something about willpower and self control. Is his argument any more or less compelling than the ego depletion argument? If anything it’s more compelling because he isn’t trying to say “science has shown that…” he’s merely stating an observation about human nature which you can choose to agree or disagree with.
By disposing of the burden of physics-esque rigor, philosophy manages to be more compelling. Seneca isn’t pretending this is some universal law like gravitation which will certainly reproduce under further experimentation. He’s just tellin’ it like it is.
We’re tired of this, right? This formula of:
Psychology finding that’s unintuitive or surprising
Broad interpretation of what the finding means
How you can use it to achieve productivity, wealth, happiness, boners, etc.
An eternal debate on whether or not it’s scientifically legitimate
We’ve become so accustomed to this format that we rarely question it and we treat it as a reliable source of knowledge. If someone has a study to back up what they’re saying, then it must be true.
But we also know that science often fails to replicate in these disciplines. It may be that most of psychology does not replicate. So should we dispense with the concepts of the field entirely? No, we just need to remove the science and turn our brains back on a bit.
With the demise of traditional religion, we needed a new god to resolve our fear of uncertainty and questions about life, death, meaning, motive. Since we’re too smart and rational to trust a dusty old book, we decided to trust the editors at Nature instead. We went from one form of orthodoxy to another.
But religion is not the only alternative to science. They’re often presented as adversaries, but they’re merely different forms of epistemology. Another option we often forget about is what we could call Philosophy, Argument, or Reason. Ideas which we believe in on the merits of their explanation, without needing to invoke God or the claims of hungover grad students.
When we take a longer view of the ideas of psychology, it becomes clear that there is very little new which it has given us. Many of the strongest ideas have been argued for millennia. The weakest ideas have never been argued, so their failure to replicate or predict behavior should not be surprising.
Psychology is somewhat similar to architecture in this regard. I love the Twitter account “architects against humanity,” because it highlights how much incredible work was done by old craftsmen who knew little about math or physics. It was not necessary to understand architectural engineering to build a house, bridge, road, or even a great monument. Experience and heuristics were enough.
Applying more advanced science and mathematics to architecture helped us build higher and farther, sure. But did it help us build beautiful spaces where we want to live?
A number of people made this error when reading my post on Rats, Levers, and Parks. They saw from the Wikipedia page on Rat Park that it hasn’t replicated, and thought that was some sort of “gotcha” that my argument had failed.
But they fell into the exact trap I’m describing here. If you need a research paper to tell you that someone stuck in a cage devoid of any comforts will be more prone to drug addiction than someone stuck in a near-idyllic society, then you are beyond help. Useful knowledge does not need Sciencism. The explanatory power of Rat Park is not because of some science labels that were slapped on it, it’s how the story helps unlock your intuition about behavior change.
“A story or anecdote is not proof” well neither is being able to find a study on Pubmed that agrees with you. But a cherry picked study gives a stronger, condescending illusion of proof. Much like the religious orthodox who thinks anything not published in their book of choice must be heresy, the “ahkshually” Sciencist (not Scientist, to be clear) has closed their mind off to a more cohesive, fluid, and adaptive worldview.
This is also what the Flat Earthers get wrong. They realize that on some level Sciencism has failed us, but then they take it wayyy too far and think that means Physics is bunk too. Obviously trust physics. Just remember that Psychology is not Physics. Every field of study is somewhere on the Bichon to Wolf spectrum. Gender Studies is a Beanie Baby or something.
The error with Ego Depletion and many other claims of Psychology was not the study setup or the researchers, it was trying to treat our brains and behaviors as Physics in the first place.
We’ve been arguing about these questions for all of recorded history. If your goal is to understand yourself and others, to learn how to live, how to grow, how to think, don’t expect Nature to give you the answer. There are no answers.
Dig into the millennia of debate and decide for yourself.
Thank you to dogisworld.com for the adorable scientist photo.
Agree with your thesis; replication in the social sciences is an iffy proposition. I believe the 2018 study found replication of 14 of the 28 studies.
As you mentioned, the larger issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works- one interesting study, quoted widely by news organizations, often without context, does not make it some unalterable truth, just the results of one scientific study. Unfortunately, most people don't do well with ambiguity, so to accept that something could be true, but may not be, tends to make people retreat into what fits into their existing worldview. Pattern recognition is a very strong force in people, trying to get them to accept contradictory world views is a tremendous challenge.
Thanks for the article!
Excellent essay. Despite years of study in academic philosophy, I’ve only recently begun sufficient reflection on the relationship and correlation between health, energy and the good life. The extent to which I’m able to exercise self-control correlates strongly with the amount of energy I possess. Health and the Good Life. Have gone back to the Greeks lately to investigate their explorations of this correlation. This book is worth having a read should you also have an itch for this. John Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom https://www.amazon.com/Pursuits-Wisdom-Philosophy-Socrates-Plotinus/dp/069115970X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1RDZL5ADH3UJC&keywords=John+Cooper+wisdom&qid=1655817703&sprefix=john+cooper+wisdom%2Caps%2C48&sr=8-1